What it’s Really Like to Work in an Amazon Warehouse

Let me state this straight-away: I never peed in a bottle while I was working in an Amazon warehouse. That said, It doesn’t surprise me that some employees evidently have.

Some background: I worked in an Amazon warehouse for about three months during the oh-so-fun year that was 2020. I was a marketing/communications guy in between jobs, a few months shy of landing my dream position. And I was bored. Quarantine isn’t fun. We all know that.

So one morning I searched for jobs I was fairly certain I could land easily. Within an hour of opening my laptop, I had been hired at Amazon (contingent, of course, on a background check and drug test that I was never asked to actually take) without ever having to talk to a living soul. That’s important. If I can do that, you can do that and so can just about anybody. The most challenging part of the process was this little critical-thinking test in which I had to stow theoretical items in the correct bin. It’s not hard.

A few weeks later, I found myself standing outside the massive warehouse on a yellow, socially distanced “X.” It was a steamy summer morning, the kind that made you glad you’d be in a warehouse that day and not, say, on a roof laying shingles. My “X” was one of about 30 others, all occupied by first-day employees, all of us wearing masks and ready to start making $15 an hour. Those same X’s were occupied two or three days a week my entire time there. Think about that for a second.

Unimaginably massive

Back to the story: It took awhile for the mid-level warehouse managers to get their act together, figure out who we were, process us and march us inside in groups of six or seven, like elementary school children holding onto a rope as they walk down the street for a field trip.

When you get through the security checkpoint, you can’t help but be in awe. The place is almost unimaginably massive. Conveyor belts run overhead in seemingly endless miles in what at first looks like a nonsensical maze. The floor is covered with painted markings of various colors with a wide variety of instructions. Go this way. Don’t go that way. Use these stairs if you’re going up. Don’t use these stairs if you’re going down. Stay inside this line. Stand here if you’re waiting to talk to an HR representative.

The place is single-handedly keeping the sign business in operation. Signs point the way to everything. Here’s a vending machine where you can get work gloves or a box opener. Here’s a vending machine where you can get Tylenol or anti-acid tablets. Both machines are smarter than you are. They read your badge and won’t give you what you want unless you’re past the allotted in-between time. Rip a glove and try to get another pair before a week has gone by? Nice try. The pain in your fingers from repetitive-stress injuries caused by doing your job as expected not cured by the first two you took four hours ago? Don’t even think about trying to get more before you’re eligible in four more hours.

We were led to a training room where we watched a few videos about how to do our jobs. You have one task: Take all the things Amazon’s smarter-than-humans algorithms know you soon will buy and stow them in the right compartments of these massive vertical bins that come to your workstation on the backs of what look like big Roombas. There are some rules to do this correctly, and the technology is there to help you. Don’t put the same item in adjacent bins; don’t put heavy stuff up top; don’t put different items on top of each other in the same compartment; don’t put an item in front of a different item. All these rules are designed to make it easier for the people down the line to, once you buy what Amazon knew you were going to buy, find it and pull it out of the compartment quickly and with minimal effort to get it on its way to ship.

For this work, Amazon agreed to pay me and my new colleagues $15 an hour. That $15 an hour is what Amazon uses to say it is a progressive, worker-friendly company. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a good argument. To make $15 an hour for unskilled manual labor is not a bad deal. After all, I wasn’t on a roof in 100-degree heat laying shingles.

But it’s also why, as soon as they perfect the technology, Amazon will dramatically reduce its workforce. Those $15-an-hour employees add up to one big and soon-to-be unnecessary expense item.

It’s all true

I walked into that warehouse with eyes wide open. I’d read all the articles, blogs and Tweets about how horrible it was to work in an Amazon facility, about how the company was singularly focused on the numbers, how you could lose your job if you’re too slow, how the company didn’t care about injuries or ailments, how you were tied to your workstation and couldn’t take bathroom breaks without falling behind. Here’s the reality: That is all true.

In my experience, Amazon didn’t expect me to hit some number right away. There was a good week or two when middle managers did a good job of helping us learn how to do things the right way. Don’t worry about speed, we were told; focus on getting the stuff in the bins correctly. No one pushed us to go faster, but they did take the time to show us if we stowed something incorrectly. That’s called training, and it was done surprisingly well. I saw exactly no one be fired in those first two weeks for not being fast enough. In fact, I saw no instances of anyone being fired for anything in that training period, and that included being painfully slow and irresponsibly late returning from breaks.

Speaking of breaks: We got two in our 10.5-hour shift — one half-hour paid lunch and one half-hour unpaid break. This isn’t bad. The problem, however, is that the main break room was up to a 7-minute brisk walk from your workstation, depending where you’re slotted to work that day. Remember, this place is impossible-to-imagine massive. Getting from Point A to Point B in an Amazon warehouse is not like doing so in your typical office building. Pre-COVID, there were smaller satellite break areas closer to individual work sections but those were shut down because they were too tight for safe social distancing.

In addition to the long walk, theoretically, we were expected to not only be back at our workstation a half-hour after we signed off to start our breaks but to be fully logged back in, stretched out and actively stowing at that time. That whole process, if you do all the recommended stretches to help prevent repetitive stress injuries (no one does them all), can take five minutes — sometimes longer.

So let’s do the math:

  • 30 minute break
  • 14 minutes of walking time
  • 5 minutes to log back in

That leaves about 11 minutes of actual break.

And that’s if you don’t have to heat up food, stop at the pain-relief vending machine, walk at a slower pace … or pee, which is at the center of some of the “If I could save pee in a bottle” issues. Realistically, if you followed the rules as you are supposed to, it’s easy to have that 30 minute break turn into about five minutes of actual rest.

Working at Amazon hurts

And at Amazon, you need the rest.

Now, full disclosure: When I started at Amazon, I was not in the best of shape. I was 45 years old and not extremely active. Add to that the fact that my life is pock-marked by various injuries to my elbow, shoulder, back and ankles, and I was not exactly the type of Amazon employee set up to thrive.

I visited the pain-relief vending machine often.

It is not easy to be on your feet for 10 1/2 hours with only 20 minutes of actual rest. You’re going back and forth in about a 10-foot square, climbing up and down a two-step ladder repeatedly and using the small muscles of the fingers and wrist that most people don’t typically use everyday. I’m not trying to paint this job as physically demanding for everyone. Navy SEALS would be just fine. And I know folks who work construction and have done so for 40 years who would laugh if they read this paragraph. What I’m saying is that, looking around at my co-workers, there were a lot of people in worse shape than I was.

It started with my left ankle. In 2009, I had major reconstructive ankle surgery. Within two weeks of starting at Amazon, it was screaming at me when I climbed the ladder. A week later, it barked with every single step. A compression sock helped. The pain went away.

A few weeks after that, my hands started to hurt. Then they started to hurt badly. A compression brace didn’t help. I would be dead asleep (side note: working at Amazon is a good cure for insomnia) in the middle of the night and would jolt awake with my hand contracting involuntarily into a claw. My hands hurt all the time.

Still, my schedule was ideal: two days on, one day off, two days on, two days off. But my off days became all about recuperating instead of enjoying life. Of course, this was mid-2020… There wasn’t must life to enjoy back then.

The COVID complaint

The physical demands of the job were made worse by the fact that you had to wear a mask everywhere, all the time, except when you were eating. Amazon has been criticized for being lax about COVID safety measures. In my experiences, this was 100 percent not true. Yes, COVID probably did spread at Amazon warehouses faster than in other places. This was because it was filled with people who did a real good job protecting their chin from infection. It wasn’t through lack of effort on any Amazon manager’s part. Safety folks and middle managers routinely came around to politely but firmly ask chin-maskers to actually mask up. They would stand there until the offender did so.

And then, in my experience, as soon as the enforcer walked away, the chin-masker would return to protecting his chin.

So what you had were thousands of workers in a poorly ventilated space doing physical work without masks and routinely violating social distancing instructions despite the repeated commands of longer-tenured company representatives. Of course COVID was going to spread.

What also was spreading was your demand for stuff. Important stuff. In my short time at Amazon, I stowed thousands of COVID safety items — masks, hand sanitizer, wipes, etc. They were given priority over any other item and went out as fast as they came in. Of course, you were also ordering starter bondage sets, nipple tassels and books on moccasins that you absolutely had to have as quickly as others wanted the masks. The only way COVID wasn’t going to spread in the warehouse, if you acknowledge that the company couldn’t and wasn’t obligated to provide each employee with a mask monitor, is for the place to shut down. Like it or not, Amazon was too important to the overall health of the nation and its pandemic-fighting efforts for that to happen.

Big Brother is, indeed, watching

Which isn’t to say that employees didn’t have a constant mask monitor. At Amazon, every employee has a monitor from the time they drive on the lot until the time they drive away.

First off, there’s your badge, which is the only way you can get in the building (and get your handy-dandy pain killers and work gloves, among other things). It has an implanted chip to monitor your movement whenever you’re on the premises. If they wanted to know where in the facility you were, they could find you. So don’t think about lying and telling your boss you were talking to HR when you were hiding out in the bathroom. They can — and do — check, and you will be terminated. I saw it happen.

There are also cameras everywhere. And people are watching those cameras. All. The. Time. It’s not just security people monitoring them. Going back to COVID safety, a middle manager told me he was called on the carpet for not maintaining social distancing while talking with an employee for less than five minutes — by a vice president at Amazon’s headquarters who was watching the camera feed. The guy’s job was saved only by the fact that the plant manager talked the VP down because he was such a good worker. The VP wanted him fired, which is an indication of how important the company takes keeping the plant open (lest you think this had anything to do with keeping the middle manager virus-free),

There are the obligatory cameras in the parking lots, the common areas and hallways. But there are also numerous cameras trained on your specific workstation. I spied the one behind me on my first day because I was looking for it after reading a blog post. Then a middle manager stopped by my area one afternoon toward the end of my first week to tell me about a mistake I made in stowing — and then showed me making the actual mistake via video on a tablet from several different angles. It was then that I realized every single movement I made was being captured like it was Super Bowl coverage. I had made that mistake no more than 15 minutes prior to the tablet brigade’s arrival. Yet there was enough person-power to have caught it and dispatched someone with to correct me.

Creepy.

Of course, such BIg Brotherism is totally within their right, and it’s well-intentioned, if you look at it from a certain angle. They want you to stow correctly. The people who were there one day and gone the next were the ones who were visited frequently by the tablet brigade. So it is not only in your best interest to stow correctly, but it’s at the heart of Amazon’s drive for efficiency. They can’t get your stuff to you in 24 to 48 hours if their pickers (the name for those who get an item out for delivery) have to search for it when it’s not in the place it’s supposed to be. Hence, they will do everything they can to point out where you made the mistake so you don’t make it again. A slow learner? Well, you’re probably not going to make it at Amazon.

Amazon is the Tinder of warehouses

You can’t speak of working at Amazon if you don’t acknowledge that efficiency — the numbers — are the only thing that truly matters. As I progressed from training to just another cog in the machine, there were hints about the number of items stowed per hour that I needed to meet. In general terms, I was asked to stow an item every seven seconds or so. And I quickly became obsessed with that number. I’m a competitive guy, and wherever I work, if I’m going to put in the time, I want to be good at it. So I would be overjoyed when a tote showed up on my sled (Amazon terms) filled will hundreds of the same small items. I could scan and stow those like a beast. That would drive my number down significantly. Land a few of those totes in a row and you can take your time from 10 seconds to 7 seconds quickly.

But then you’d end up with some dud totes, filled with random items of different sizes, or, heaven forbid, a run of totes filled with larger items… say, 24 packs of sports drinks. Not only did these take a physical toll on you, they would slow you way down. And if you ended up with full boxes that you had to cut open, empty and stow instead of totes, you were lucky to keep your time under 15 seconds.

All that said, I was never, ever asked to pick up my pace. Part of the reason for that is, in general, I was fast and accurate. I even won the fastest-stower-of-the-week award for my team of about 30 people, for which my manager and her second-in-command appeared at my workstation a half hour before quitting time on a Friday and awarded me a tiny Darth Vader toy. I still have that Darth Vader. It took a lot of effort to win.

But part of the reason is that the managers, or at least the managers I saw or worked for, were not overly obsessed about the numbers. It wasn’t like what I’d read in the blogs or articles. If I were on boxes, there was absolutely zero expectation that I would stow an item every 7 seconds. On my worst day ever as an Amazon employee, I averaged nearly 25 seconds. No one said a thing.

The attitude my manager had was that, yes, the 7 second number was the target, but no one was going to be fired for falling somewhat short. If you were at 10 seconds and were accurate, it appeared to me you were fine. There were a ton of things that could keep you from that 7 second mark that were outside of your control, beyond being on boxes. Those little Roomba things that drove the bins to you from the depths of the warehouse could get stuck behind cross-traffic on the floor. An item could fall out of a bin, caused by someone who stowed something improperly. Then, a specially clothed employee would have to be found to go into the restricted area to clean up the mess. (And you best believe the offending stower would be getting a visit from someone in the tablet brigade.) You could land a run of bigger items that slowed you down. Your manager could stop by and talk to you for five minutes. Not hitting that average speed was not going to get you fired — at least, not in my little corner of the Amazon empire.

What would seem to lead to “Hey, what ever happened to that guy?” was to be a blatant screw-up. And there were many of them. Any job you can get by filling out a few forms online without talking to a human being and requiring no education and very little skill is going to attract folks who don’t necessarily have the best work ethic. I don’t think it was accidental that the people who seemed to disappear the quickest were the ones who showed up late to work, took their time coming back from breaks, tried to find corners that the cameras didn’t reach to check their phones and spent copious amounts of time doing things other than the one thing Amazon wanted them to do — stow stuff.

The fact that the warehouse was essentially a singles bar didn’t help some people. Guys whose job it was to bring totes to sleds would routinely spend the most time at the workstations of the more attractive young stowers. And the stowers who found this endearing would spend sometimes 20 minutes or so flirting back. As a middle-aged married guy, watching this play out amused me and provided a good break from the monotony.

Amazon doesn’t care about your love life. And it would tell these employees so… with automated messages on the ever-present workstation monitor that would, were you inactive for any length of time, tell you in big, bold numbers how long it had been since you stowed your last item. Ignore that hint at your own peril.

Amazon didn’t care about your excuses. If the numbers — and middle management had access to dozens of metrics at all times — showed you weren’t cutting it, they didn’t really care why. They would offer you tips and tricks to speed up or become more accurate, and then expected you to get back to work — faster and better than you were before.

The Bathroom Complaint, in reality

This is where Amazon takes flak from the “I can’t even go to the bathroom!” complainers.

Here’s the deal: Amazon does not forbid anyone from going to the bathroom. It isn’t like an elementary school classroom, where you have to raise your hand and ask for permission. If you had to go, you went.

But that doesn’t mean you weren’t expected to meet your numbers. On the few occasions I couldn’t hold it until break, I found a bathroom and I did my thing. But my numbers suffered. When you don’t stow an item for five or 10 minutes, it’s tough to recover and get your time per item down to seven seconds.

Still, no one ever said anything to me when I went to the bathroom or walked to a water fountain to get a refill. The people who ended up disappearing were not the ones who occasionally had to pee. They were the ones who had to pee four or five times outside of breaks every single day. From where I worked, these people often were the same folks who would show up late, come back from breaks late and were visited frequently by the tablet brigade and the middle managers with the tips for being more efficient.

How to be successful at Amazon

At the end of the day, Amazon is a pretty simple place to work. You have to be in good physical shape, and you have to show up on time, follow the rules and work hard. No, it’s not glamorous. In fact, the work is mind-numbingly boring. But you’re getting paid $15 an hour to do it, and the reality is that you’re not going to find many other jobs for that kind of hourly rate requiring such little smarts or skill.

Having worked at more than one place that was governed by petty politics, back-biting and, to be only a tad dramatic, outright villainy, it was refreshing to toil where the only thing that mattered was your objective performance. You could be the sweetest, kindest person in the world. You still needed to make your numbers. Amazon’s attitude is this: If you can’t do it, there are 30 people starting tomorrow. Someone will eventually be found to do the job.

Amazon is always hiring. I could go online right now and, within an hour, be on my way back to working in the warehouse. They have calculated their turnover rate down to the very hour, so people are always in the pipeline ready to fill the open spots. The job requires so little skill and training that they don’t care about losing people who can’t live up to their standards of efficiency.

There are many, many, many people who fill these jobs and last. They get it. They don’t make excuses. They show up on time. They work hard.

And in return, Amazon pays them comparably well. The company even gives them some health care benefits. They’re expensive and not the best in the world, but for a job requiring no real skill, they aren’t bad.

Listen. I get it. For me, working at Amazon wasn’t a need. I was getting paid from someplace else while waiting for hiring in my field to loosen up as the pandemic crested its first big wave. For those who need the job, it’s a lot tougher. An ankle injury, a hand injury, coming down with COVID, well, Amazon doesn’t really care. They’ll give you the time off to recover, but you’re not going to get paid. If you need the income to support your family, you’re screwed.

There also was a military mentality that wasn’t family friendly. It didn’t matter how fast I stowed as an individual. If the entire pack of stowers didn’t meet the plant’s efficiency goals, which would fluctuate based on demand, a message would pop up on everyone’s workstation monitor gently encouraging the collective to pick it up.

Or else.

If the collective didn’t pick it up, the next message would alert you of mandatory overtime. Sometimes that meant you’d have to start your shift an hour earlier for a week. Sometimes that meant everyone was going to be working on what was scheduled to be an off day. Daughter graduating high school that day? Tough. You would be there for the mandatory overtime or you risked losing your job.

You and your cockroaches are the problem

Which brings us back to where we started: Do Amazon employees really pee in bottles and poop in bags? Of course they do. The company is set up solely for customer satisfaction. Customers who don’t get their items in 24 to 48 hours are not happy customers. And you, be you a driver or a stower or a picker, are not the customer. You are essentially filling in until someone develops a robot who can do your job.

And that day is coming. Trust me: Though I was a good stower who worked fast and put thought into placing items in certain compartments so that I could make the best use of each bin and be efficient with my time, someone right now is working on the machine that will do it better. When that happens, the stowers will go away. Is that fair? No. Will thousands upon thousands of people be negatively effected? You bet. But will it happen anyway? Absolutely.

Why? Because you’re going to want more and more stuff from Amazon, and you’re going to be happy when they tell you they can get it to you faster. You’re not going to think about that stower you don’t know who’s out of a job. You’re just going to enjoy that you’re now able to get that item same-day instead of 48 hours later.

Which leads to this conclusion: For those of you who want to jump on the bandwagon of hating on Amazon because of how it treats its employees, cool beans. You have every right to do so. But if you’re still ordering items from there and not downgrading your shipping time so your stuff gets there in, say, five days instead of two, well, you’re part of the reason conditions are what they are. Customer expectations are the root of the problem here.

So yes, hate on Amazon. The way they operate a business is, generally, not very kind to the rank-and-file. No, it’s not as bad as many people make it out to be, but it’s not what I would call good. If you’re going to complain and be outraged when you hear things like employees peeing in bottles, just make sure you’re driving to those mom-and-pop stores that are open only at the convenience of the owners and not 24/7/365. Don’t even think about ordering that must-have item at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. And get reacquainted with what it was like not too long ago when you would order something from a catalog and forget you ordered it because delivery wasn’t until six weeks later.

Jeff Bezos didn’t create Amazon. You created Amazon. Bezos showed you what could be done will the right technology and amazing logistics. You never stopped to think that the only way this magic could happen is through unrealistic expectations placed on average folks who toil in the warehouses and need those jobs to feed their families. This isn’t to excuse Amazon. To position itself as benevolent by paying $15 an hour is a comical farce. The wage creates dependency and paves the way for abuse. But that abuse wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t millions of customers who didn’t give a damn, who simply wanted their stuff and wanted it now, who didn’t want to get dressed, go out, deal with putting on a mask, walk around aisle after aisle only to find their desired item wasn’t in stock, drive to another store, deal with crappy customer service and maybe, just maybe, find what they were looking for.

Yes, it’s much easier to buy your sexed pair of Madagascar hissing cockroaches from the comfort of your own coach at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. And, based on the success of Amazon, more than enough of us find that convenience 100 percent worth it, no matter what’s going on inside the warehouse.

One thought on “What it’s Really Like to Work in an Amazon Warehouse

  1. Great insight on a company I admire for their efficiency and customer focused mentality. And in the final analysis, it is no way as bad as the working conditions that my immigrant grand father endured for 10 bucks a week building the NYC subway!!!

    Like

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